The Fourth of July
Audre Lorde (1934-1992) was a poet and nonfiction writer. Born in
New York City to Caribbean immigrants, Lorde trained and worked as a
j librarian and became a widely published poet in the 1960s, when she
also became politically active. Her poetry collections include The First
Cities (1968), Cables to Rage (1970), and The Black Unicorn (1978);
\ her other books were memoir and political and social theory, including
The Cancer Journals (1980) and Zami: A New Spelling of My Name
u The Fourth of July” is a beautifully spare yet forceful piece of
I writing. In it, readers can see the anger that spurred much of Lordes
writing, whether about racism, as in this essay, or about sexism or
homophobia, but they can also see the control with which Lorde
expressed her ideas and the honesty with which she implicated herself
and her family in her writing.
The first time I went to Washington, D.C., was on the edge of the
summer when I was supposed to stop being a child. At least that's
what they said to us all at graduation from the eighth grade.
My sister Phyllis graduated at the same time from high school.
I don't know what she was supposed to stop being. But as gradu-
ation presents for us both, the whole family took a Fourth of July
trip to Washington, D.C., the fabled and famous capital of our
It was the first time I'd ever been on a railroad train during
the day. When I was little, and we used to go to the Connecticut
shore, we always went at night on the milk train, because it was
Preparations were in the air around our house before school
was even over. We packed for a week. There were two very large
suitcases that my father carried, and a box filled with food. In fact,
my first trip to Washington was a mobile feast; I started eating as
240 AUDRE LORDE
soon as we were comfortably ensconced in our seats, and did not
stop until somewhere after Philadelphia. I remember it was Phil-
adelphia because I was disappointed not to have passed by the
My mother had roasted two chickens and cut them up into
dainty bite-size pieces. She packed slices of brown bread and but-
ter and green pepper and carrot sticks. There were little violently
yellow iced cakes with scalloped edges called “marigolds,” that
came from Cushmans Bakery. There was a spice bun and rock-
cakes from Newtons, the West Indian bakery across Lenox Ave-
nue from St. Mark’s School, and iced tea in a wrapped mayonnaise
jar. There were sweet pickles for us and dill pickles for my father,
and peaches with the fuzz still on them, individually wrapped to
keep them from bruising. And, for neatness, there were piles of
napkins and a little tin box with a washcloth dampened with rose-
water and glycerine for wiping sticky mouths.
I wanted to eat in the dining car because I had read all about
them, but my mother reminded me for the umpteenth time that
dining car food always cost too much money and besides, you
never could tell whose hands had been playing all over that food,
nor where those same hands had been just before. My mother
never mentioned that black people were not allowed into railroad
dining cars headed south in 1947. As usual, whatever my mother
did not like and could not change, she ignored. Perhaps it would
go away, deprived of her attention.
I learned later that Phyllis's high school senior class trip had
been to Washington, but the nuns had given her back her deposit
in private, explaining to her that the class, all of whom were white,
except Phyllis, would be staying in a hotel where Phyllis “would
not be happy,” meaning, Daddy explained to her, also in private,
that they did not rent rooms to Negroes. “We will take you to
Washington, ourselves,” my father had avowed, “and not just for
an overnight in some measly fleabag hotel.”
American racism was a new and crushing reality that my par-
ents had to deal with every day of their lives once they came
to this country. They handled it as a private woe. My mother and
father believed that they could best protect their children from
the realities of race in America and the fact of American racism
by never giving them name, much less discussing their nature.
We were told we must never trust white people, but why was never
THE FOURTH OF JULY 24 1
explained, nor the nature of their ill will. Like so many other
vital pieces of information in my childhood, I was supposed to
know without being told. It always seemed like a very strange
injunction coming from my mother, who looked so much like
one of those people we were never supposed to trust. But some-
thing always warned me not to ask my mother why she wasn't
white, and why Auntie Lillah and Auntie Etta weren't, even though
they were all that same problematic color so different from my
father and me, even from my sisters, who were somewhere in-
In Washington, D.C., we had one large room with two double
beds and an extra cot for me. It was a back-street hotel that
belonged to a friend of my father's who was in real estate, and I
spent the whole next day after Mass squinting up at the Lincoln
Memorial where Marian Anderson had sung after the D.A.R.
refused to allow her to sing in their auditorium because she was
black. Or because she was “Colored," my father said as he told us
the story. Except that what he probably said was “Negro," because
for his times, my father was quite progressive.
I was squinting because I was in that silent agony that charac-
terized all of my childhood summers, from the time school let out
in June to the end of July, brought about by my dilated and vul-
nerable eyes exposed to the summer brightness.
I viewed Julys through an agonizing corolla of dazzling white-
ness and I always hated the Fourth of July, even before I came to
realize the travesty such a celebration was for black people in this
My parents did not approve of sunglasses, nor of their expense.
I spent the afternoon squinting up at monuments to freedom
and past presidencies and democracy, and wondering why the
light and heat were both so much stronger in Washington, D.C.,
than back home in New York City. Even the pavement on the
streets was a shade lighter in color than back home.
Late that Washington afternoon my family and I walked back
down Pennsylvania Avenue. We were a proper caravan, mother
bright and father brown, the three of us girls step-standards in-
between. Moved by our historical surroundings and the heat of
early evening, my father decreed yet another treat. He had a great
sense of history, a flair for the quietly dramatic and the sense of
specialness of an occasion and a trip.
242 AUDRE LORDE
“Shall we stop and have a little something to cool off, Lin?”
Two blocks away from our hotel, the family stopped for a dish 15
of vanilla ice cream at a Breyer’s ice cream and soda fountain.
Indoors, the soda fountain was dim and fan-cooled, deliciously
relieving to my scorched eyes.
Corded and crisp and pinafored, the five of us seated ourselves
one by one at the counter. There was I between my mother and
father, and my two sisters on the other side of my mother. We
settled ourselves along the white mottled marble counter, and
when the waitress spoke at first no one understood what she was
saying, and so the five of us just sat there.
The waitress moved along the line of us closer to my father and
spoke again. “I said I kin give you to take out, but you cant eat
here. Sorry.” Then she dropped her eyes looking very embarrassed,
and suddenly we heard what it was she was saying all at the same
time, loud and clear.
Straight-backed and indignant, one by one, my family and I
got down from the counter stools and turned around and marched
out of the store, quiet and outraged, as if we had never been black
before. No one would answer my emphatic questions with any-
thing other than a guilty silence. “But we hadn’t done anything!”
This wasn’t right or fair! Hadn’t I written poems about Bataan
and freedom and democracy for all?
My parents wouldn’t speak of this injustice, not because they
had contributed to it, but because they felt they should have
anticipated it and avoided it. This made me even angrier. My fury
was not going to be acknowledged by a like fury. Even my two
sisters copied my parents’ pretense that nothing unusual and anti-
American had occurred. I was left to write my angry letter to the
president of the United States all by myself, although my father
did promise I could type it out on the office typewriter next week,
after I showed it to him in my copybook diary.
The waitress was white, and the counter was white, and the ice 20
cream I never ate in Washington, D.C., that summer I left child-
hood was white, and the white heat and the white pavement and
the white stone monuments of my first Washington summer made
me sick to my stomach for the whole rest of that trip and it wasn t
much of a graduation present after all.